Review: Vratogna, Shagimuratova, Chacon-Cruz, Luisotti – “Rigoletto” Magnifico – San Francisco Opera, September 8, 2012

In past reviews of “Rigoletto” at the San Francisco Opera, I have remarked at the care in casting the smallest roles for the last two mountings of  Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. Even so, I have had reservations about the casting of the Duke of Mantua, the role that sings the most famous melodies in the opera, perhaps in all of Italian opera. A tenor can have a beautiful sound and superb technique and artistry, and still not have the right weight of voice for the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House.

Usually casting for major roles in the large international opera companies, of which the San Francisco Opera company is one, occurs years in advance, but last minute issues arise. Just a few days before the opening of the season, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz stepped in to replace a colleague and to make his San Francisco Opera debut.

[Below: the Duke of Mantua (Arturo Chacón-Cruz, right) discusses his plans for conquest with his jester, Rigoletto (Marco Vratogna, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Of course, finding the tenor with the right combination of voice, acting skills and looks, is not enough without a great Rigoletto and Gilda. But two artists who have already won the hearts of San Francisco Opera audiences, baritone Marco Vratogna is cast as Rigoletto and soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Gilda.

Chacón-Cruz proved to be the ingredient missing in the most recent mountings of the opera in San Francisco, a tenor who can hold his own in casts containing world class Rigolettos and Gildas. Vratogna, Chacónn-Cruz and Shagimuratova make up the trio of artists who will be together for four of the 12 performances in San Francisco’s “Rigoletto”-dominated September.

Nicola Luisotti’s Conducting

The first ten of those 12 performances are conducted by Music Director Nicola Luisotti. Any Luisotti conducting assignment is a joy to watch. His now deep professional bonding with the San Francisco Opera orchestra has produced a level of performance quality that assures any Luisotti-conducted opera will be a great musical experience.

So confident is Luisotti in the San Francisco Opera orchestra and they in him, Luisotti will at times close his eyes and stretch out his arms as if conjuring the music. His conducting is, of course, vigorous in complex passages where all eyes are on the conductor to keep everyone together, but, in soft passages of this opera or for the aria La donna e mobile whose music the tenor and orchestra knows so well, Luisotti will sometimes lift only his right hand and twitch his fingers to get the effect he wishes.

[Note to aspiring conductors: Don’t try this without years of experience with the orchestra you are leading.]

Marco Vratogna’s Rigoletto

Our current era of opera performance is one of international casts, whatever their native language and nationality, excelling in the great operatic roles of the Italian, French and German repertories, with supertitles available to simultaneously translate to the audience what is happening onstage.

Much less than a century ago, opera company managements often preferred singers and conductors from, respectively, Italy, France and Germany (or Austria).

This cast boasts a stellar duo of a Mexican tenor as the Duke and a Russian soprano from Uzbekistan as the Gilda. But there is a sense of special authenticity that in this cast the title role is being sung by an Italian artist and conducted by an Italian conductor, the latter the musical director of the opera companies of both Naples, Italy and San Francisco.

In fact, one would have to go back in time 60 years to experience the last time an Italian-born conductor (Pietro Cimara) was paired with an Italian-born Rigoletto (Giuseppe Valdengo) in the War Memorial Opera House, when they shared the stage with Jan Peerce’s Duke and Lily Pons’ Gilda.

[Below: Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Vratogna has now become a familiar artist on the Pacific Coast, with successes in both San Francisco [see Ovations for ‘Otello’ – San Francisco Opera, November 8, 2009 and Brilliant Cast, Colorful Production, Luisotti’s Masterful Conducting Enliven San Francisco “Aida” – September 19, 2010] and Seattle [Reveling in Early Verdi: Relyea, Garcia, Vratogna, Palombi in Montanaro’s Uncut “Attila” – Seattle Opera, January 14, 2012].

He was a masterful Rigoletto, expressing both fear and intense sorrow at his condition in his second scene aria Pari siamo, suspicion and temptation in his first encounter with Sparafucile, rage followed by pleas for sympathy in his great aria Cortigiani and dismay and grief at opera’s end.

Arturo Chacón-Cruz’s Duke of Mantua

In San Francisco, the courtiers, Borsa, Ceprano and Marullo, are cast with such care that I suspect some audience members might be confused as which one is the Duke until he begins his first big aria Questa o quella. With Chacón-Cruz the primo uomo is never in doubt.

His is a robust tenor voice, inherently attractive. He filled the bill (and the War Memorial) for the succession of arias and duets that make this one of the greatest of Italian opera roles. He also was a strong actor, arguably the most persuasive Duke since Spanish tenor Giacomo Aragall debuted, 39 years ago, in a Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production whose over-the-t0p sexuality management felt had to be toned down a bit for the second and later performances.

[Below: The Duke of Mantua (Arturo Chacon-Cruz, center) plots his next two sexual conquests; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

One got the impression that Chacón-Cruz had entered Rigoletto’s house (a pretty austere one in the Yeargan sets) not just to make beautiful music with Albina Shagimuratova, the Gilda, but actually to romance the Russian soprano. (Unlike the tenor in the alternate cast, he got a couple of kisses from his Gilda.) The theatrical value of visibly electrifying attraction between the Gilda and the Duke, makes Gilda’s self-sacrifice in the final scene rather more plausible that is often the case.

Chacón-Cruz makes clear that the Duke will never be a one-woman man. The Duke, after all, shares his palace with a Duchess who obviously knows much of what he’s up to. Having recently ravaged Gilda, Chacon-Cruz’ Duke puts the make on Maddalena, caressing her bare legs up to her thighs.

Albina Shagimuratova’s Gilda

The role of Gilda is in good hands in both casts. Shagimuratova, whose San Francisco Opera debut three months prior created great excitement [See my review at Perfect Game: Gunn, Shagimuratova Shine in New Kaneko-Designed “Magic Flute” – June 13, 2012], brings to Gilda the brilliant coloratura technique that one heard with her Queen of the Night.

Her Caro nome, sung on the upper floor of her home, in part when she is laying on her back, was a show-stopper.

[Below: Gilda (Albina Shagimuratova) has survived rape, but finds that she is still in love with her rapist; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Her confusion about her rape by the Duke, leads her to decide (a decision with which most Californians would have little sympathy) that she should strive to protect the life and honor of her rapist against her murderously enraged father.

 Andrea Silvestrelli’s Sparafucile

The operative that Rigoletto enlists to avenge Gilda’s rape is the Burgundian assassin Sparafucile, played, appropriately, with menace and a bit of charm, by the Italian basso Andrea Silvestrelli.

[Below: Sparafucile (Andrea Silvestrelli right) receives final instructions on assassination plans from Rigoletto (Marco Vratogna, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

He was nicely paired with the Maddalena of Kendall Gladen (who sang that in this production in Los Angeles in 2010, but the smaller role of Gilda’s maid Giovanna in San Francisco in 2006).

The Mantuan Court

In “Rigoletto” the first scene of action (the San Francisco production enlists the Rigoletto in an onstage pantomime during the opera’s prelude) is a wild party in progress among the Duke of Mantua’s courtiers.

Besides the Duke and his jester, three principal male courtiers (each played by San Francisco Opera Adler fellows) are at the party, Borsa (Daniel Montenegro), Marullo (Joo Won Kang) and Count Ceprano (Ryan Kuster).

More than one opera star sang one of these party-goer roles early in his career (Placido Domingo’s first role ever was Borsa). Kang, Kuster and Montenegro, each sporting an elegant, fantastical Constance Hoffman costume, maintained the San Francisco Opera tradition of assigning important young voices to these comprimario parts. [For observations on the party-goers in another Verdi opera, see Ailyn Perez and Stephen Costello Star in Cincinnati Opera’s “La Traviata” – July 26, 2012.]

[Below: Kendall Gladen as Maddalena; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

These small Verdian party-goer roles provide an opportunity for the kinds of theatrical performances that one now expects regularly from young American-trained artists. Staged by Director Harry Silverstein, one can almost observe the conflicted thoughts of Count Ceprano, who obviously has pride of place in this licentious court, feels about the Duke, in the presence of the Count and his friends, making sexual advances to Ceprano’s Countess (played skillfully by Adler Fellow Laura Krumm).

Final Thoughts

The second performance proved to be one of the most satisfactory “Rigolettos” that I have seen at the War Memorial Opera House

There are 12 scheduled performances of “Rigoletto” at the San Francisco Opera this fall. All the persons scheduled to appear in the 12 performances (excepting conductor Giuseppe Finzi, who conducts the final two performances), appeared in one or both of the opening Friday and Saturday night performances. [For my review of the Friday night performance, see: Lucic, Kurzak, Praiseworthy in Season Opening “Rigoletto” – San Francisco Opera, September 7, 2012.]

No current ticketholders need try to trade tickets between performances, but if I were trying to decide between the next several performances I would recommend especially the performances of September 12th, 16th and 19th, in which Chacón-Cruz joins Vratogna and Shagimuratova.